RESEARCH: From the SFU Art Collection: Susan Point

Oscar Sanchez | January 17, 2017

Susan Point is a prominent Coast Salish artist who lives and works on the Musqueam Reserve on the Fraser River. In 1981 she began making silkscreen prints in her kitchen-while simultaneously working as a legal secretary-following a desire to know more about and reconnect with the artistic traditions of her ancestors. A growing reputation over more than three decades has led to a prolific career as an artist. Working as a carver and a printmaker, she has received numerous commissions for major public works that can now be found across North America. This includes notable examples such as the Musqueam Welcome Figures and the 16-foot Flight (Spindle Whorl), which have greeted travellers descending to the customs area at the Vancouver International Airport since the mid-1990s.

Point was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts by Simon Fraser University in 2008 for her contribution to Canadian art and culture. In her convocation speech, Point described how she is focused on reintroducing the artistic traditions of Coast Salish art to the public, many of which had been lost as a result of European contact and settlement. This focus takes a particularly contemporary turn for Point, who is interested in mixing those traditions with her own experience, drawing from a belief that Coast Salish art was, and should be, an evolving experience for those who create it.

Susan Point, North Arm, 2011. Serigraph, ed. 8/100. Gift of the artist, 2011.

The SFU Art Collection holds several prints by Point. Two of these, North Arm (2011) and Canoe Pass (2011), are part of a series and were acquired by the SFU Art Collection in the year they were made. Beyond these holdings, SFU is also home to two sculptural works by Point that are on long-term loan from a private collection. The first, Written in the Earth (2000) is located in the Saywell Hall atrium and consists of four cedar and aluminum reliefs that depict a variety of faces and animals. The second, Blue Herons (2008), consists of three red cedar carvings that can be found in TASC 1. Blue Herons is based on the public art commission that Point received for 15 concrete buttresses that drain storm water from the roof of the Richmond Olympic Oval. Point considers prints as the core of her artistic practice, into which all her other work-largely in cedar, aluminum and public commissions-ties in. The serigraph print series in the SFU Art Collection is a manifestation of this approach, since they are drawn from the same imagery that was used in the Richmond public art commission.

North Arm, Canoe Pass and Iona Beach (the third in the series was made in 2012 and is not held the SFU Art Collection) follow the lower portion of the public carvings, perhaps as a result of the proportions of the vertical columns which would make a print unwieldy. The prints each feature a school of salmon and a blue heron, which follows Point's frequent engagement with nature as her subject matter. This is an engagement that is drawn from Coast Salish iconography and oral history, and driven by her belief in the importance of the relationship between humans and nature. Point develops each print from a black and white drawing, which often creates a strong sense of contrast, where negative space becomes an important component of the artwork. The heron in North Arm and Canoe Pass is created from the negative space formed by the school of salmon. This negative space conceals the heron at first glance and adds to the gradual perception of the print. Moreover, through its formation out from the school of salmon, the heron and the salmon are each implicated in a mutual relationship and in the interconnectedness of the natural world. 

Susan Point, Canoe Pass, 2011. Serigraph, ed. 8/100. Gift of the artist, 2011.

When the two prints are taken together, this relationship is furthered by her use of colour and the placement of the heron within the overall composition. North Arm features a school of salmon in warm oranges and deep reds. Meanwhile, the heron's placement with the neck doubled down against the current of the salmon suggests some degree of opposition. This possibly hints at the fall season, when salmon come to spawn in streams and rivers and encounter the heron, a fish-eating species. On the other hand, Canoe Pass is rendered in colder green tones, with the heron following the current of the salmon. In this arrangement, they can be seen to be coexisting alongside each other, at least for a time.

North Arm and Canoe Pass also refer to locations in the Fraser River delta that are part of the traditional lands of the Musqueam people. Through this act, Point is connecting not only with the artistic traditions of her ancestors but also with the space and environment she is presently a part of. This interconnectedness is something that is also present in the development of the prints, from the carvings in Richmond, to those sculptural installations at SFU, and to the prints in the SFU Art Collection. North Arm and Canoe Pass represent a small segment of her printmaking; she has produced over 300 print editions. These two prints thus offer only a small window into Susan Point’s widely recognized and respected oeuvre.